“I burst into Children’s Hospitals in Minneapolis and said to the person at the front desk: ‘Hi. My name is Courtney. I’m from Duluth. You have my baby.’” –Courtney Kile, mother of Sully
When Courtney and her husband Rob learned they were having a baby—after trying for two years—they were over the moon. Their son Sully was born on Nov. 14, 2011 in Courtney’s hometown of Duluth. For about 24 hours, they were a happy, carefree family.
Shortly after he was born, Sully's oxygen levels were low. At two days old, he was given an echocardiogram, and Courtney got a call from her doctor immediately thereafter. It was one o'clock in the morning.
“Courtney, the Life Flight team from Children’s Hospitals is on the way. They’ll be there in about five minutes,” her doctor told her. “I think Sully has something wrong with his heart, and is going to need surgery.”
With his parents reeling, an ambulance took Sully to the Duluth International Airport, and he was flown to the Twin Cities and brought to Children’s Hospitals. Courtney and Rob followed in their car, arriving to the Metro area just in time for morning rush hour.
“When we arrived, I burst into Children’s and said to the person at the front desk: ‘Hi. My name is Courtney. I’m from Duluth. You have my baby.’”
Two days after he was born—when most parents are doting on their newborn’s tiny fingers and toes—Sully was diagnosed with Pulmonary Atresia with Tetralogy of Fallot. In other words: he had a congenital heart defect (CHD). He was scheduled for heart surgery the next day.
“Not only was this a major surgery, but because the doctors needed to stop his heart, they had to put Sully on a heart-lung bypass machine,” Courtney said. “However, newborn babies don’t have enough blood to be put on a bypass machine. Because of that, Sully needed blood and blood products to be able to handle the surgery.”
Thanks to a team of skilled doctors, volunteer blood donors in the community, and two very motivated parents, Sully underwent a full sternotomy when he was just three days old.
“CHD is the number one birth defect in the world—about 1/100 children are born with it,” Courtney said. “And we had no idea. We were completely blindsided, and we had to learn everything ourselves. We felt so alone.”
Sully came out of his heart surgery strong and healthy, and recovered quickly—he went home a full week ahead of schedule. He needed a second, scheduled, heart surgery six months later, and received a human heart valve to replace the one he missed out on at birth. Again—he recovered so quickly, he got to go home early.
“Ever since Sully was born, we started noticing how prevalent CHD is,” Courtney said. She and her husband founded Project Heart to Heart—a non-profit organization connecting families whose children have CHD. The organization raises funds to help families pay for utility bills, gas, baby monitors, and other items that families may struggle to provide while navigating medical systems. They also teach CPR classes, help walk families through medical claims, and in 2013, received the “Making a Difference” award from Duluth’s KBJR-6 news station.
“People should know that CHD isn’t a death sentence anymore. We felt so alone when Sully had his first surgery—we didn’t know anyone else going through that experience. Now, with Project Heart to Heart, we have the ability to connect people with a community,” Courtney said.
And Courtney quickly became a strong advocate for giving blood. “I think it’s important for people to realize that in about an hour of donating blood, you’re the reason someone gets to graduate high school. You’re the reason I’m sending Sully to kindergarten this fall. You’re the reason someone is walking down the aisle. You took one hour, and someone gets their dad back. You don’t understand the need until you’re facing it.”
Sully will need a heart valve replacement in the next few years, but he and his family feel prepared this time around. “I’m not the same person I was six years ago,” Courtney continued. “When you face the mortality of your child, you change."
Courtney is grateful every day for the time she has with Sully. “When something like this happens to you, you want to thank everyone. But how do you adequately thank someone for saving your child? Thank you for giving me back my best friend. Thank you for making us feel like we weren’t alone. Thank you for taking time out of your lunch break to donate blood. Thank you for our miracle. I hope you know how deeply and truly we love and appreciate you.”